New U.S. Vital Records Online: Freedmen’s Bureau, Statewide Databases and More

Millions of U.S. vital records have recently been published online! These include updates to the U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index; nationwide obituary, funeral home, and cemetery databases; Freedmen’s Bureau field office records; a new African American Center for Family History; and updates to vital records collections for CA, ID, LA, MI, NV, PA, SC, St. Croix, and WA. 

U.S. Vital Records new and updated

Scan this list of nationwide, regional, and statewide collections of vital records: which should you search for your U.S. ancestors? Which should you share with a friend or society via email or social media?

U.S. Vital Records: Nationwide Databases

Ancestry.com has updated three nationwide databases of vital events for the United States:

  • Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007. Click here to learn more about this important collection, which takes the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) a step further by providing additional information on millions of names.
  • U.S. Obituary Collection, 1930-2017. “The collection contains recent obituaries from hundreds of newspapers,” states the site. “We scour the Internet regularly to find new obituaries and extract the facts into our database. Where available we include the original URL link to the source information. As the internet is a changing medium, links may stop working over time.”
  • U.S. Cemetery and Funeral Home Collection, 1847-2017. “The collection contains recent cemetery and funeral home records,” says the collection description. “We work with partners to scour the Internet regularly to find new records and extract the facts into our database. Where available we include the original URL link to the source information. As the internet is a changing medium, links may stop working over time.”

Across the South and African American Heritage

Ancestry.com subscribers may now also search a new database, U.S., Freedmen’s Bureau Records of Field Offices, 1863-1878. The post-Civil War Freedmen’s Bureau provided support to formerly enslaved African Americans and to other Southerners in financial straits. This database includes records from field offices that served Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, and the cities of New Orleans and Washington, D.C. It also includes records from the Adjutant General’s office relating to the Bureau’s work in Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Carolina. Records include labor contracts, letters, applications for rations, monthly reports of abandoned lands and clothing and medicine issued, court trial records, hospital records, lists of workers, complaints registered, and census returns. A related collection, U.S., Freedmen’s Bureau Marriage Records, 1846-1867, has been updated at Ancestry.com.

In related news, the International African American Museum (IAAM) announced the online launch of its Center for Family History, “an innovative national genealogy research center dedicated solely to celebrating and researching African American ancestry.” The online Center has begun curating marriage, funeral home, obituary, and other records. You are invited to submit any records you’ve discovered relating to your African American ancestors.

California and Nevada marriage records

Over 4.3 million new records have been added to Findmypast’s collection of U.S. marriage records for the states of California and Nevada. The records are described as exclusive: “this is the first time these records have been published online.”

Idaho marriage records

Ancestry.com has updated its collection of Idaho, Marriage Records, 1863-1966. “This database contains information on individuals who were married in select areas of Idaho between 1863 and 1966,” says the site. “Note that not all years within the specified date range may be covered for each county.” Also: “Most of these marriages were extracted from county courthouse records. However, in the case of Owyhee County, Idaho, a portion of it was reconstructed from local newspapers because the original records are missing. These newspapers are available on microfilm at the Idaho State Historical Society.”

Louisiana death records

Nearly 50,00 indexed names have been added to FamilySearch.org’s free database, Louisiana Deaths, 1850-1875, 1894-1960. According to the site, http://www.mindanews.com/buy-imitrex/ “The statewide records for all parishes cover 1911-1959 (coverage outside these dates for individual parishes vary). Death records from 1850-1875 are for Jefferson Parish only.”

Michigan death records

Ancestry.com has updated its database,Michigan, Death Records, 1897-1929.” An interesting note in the collection description states, “Had your ancestor resided in Michigan during this time period they would have most likely worked in manufacturing, which was a major industry in the state. Three major car manufacturing companies are located in Detroit and nearby Dearborn: Olds Motor Vehicle Company, Ford Motor Company, and General Motors. Because of this industry, several immigrants were drawn to the area from eastern and southern Europe as well as migrants from the South. Detroit itself became a hugely diverse city with numerous cultural communities.”

Pennsylvania Catholic baptisms, marriages, and burials

Findmypast.com has added new databases from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to its Roman Catholic Heritage Archive. These include:

  • Philadelphia Roman Catholic Parish Baptisms. Over 556,000 new records, which include name, date, and place of baptism and the names and residence of parents.
  • Philadelphia Roman Catholic Parish Marriages. Over 278,000 sacramental register entries. Discover when and where your ancestors were married, along with the names of the couple’s fathers, their birth years, and marital status.
  • Philadelphia Roman Catholic Parish Registers. Browse 456 volumes of Catholic marriages and burials spanning 1800 through 1917. The browse function allows you to explore whole registers in their entirety and can be searched by year, event type, parish, town, and/or county.

South Carolina marriages and deaths

Ancestry.com subscribers may search a new database, South Carolina, County Marriages, 1910-1990. “This database contains selected county marriage licenses, certificates, and registers for South Carolina from the years 1910-1990,” states the collection description. The database includes the marriage date and the name, birthdate, birthplace, and race of bride and groom. “Other information such as the bride’s and groom’s residence at the time of marriage, the number of previous marriages, and occupation may also be listed on the record and can be obtained by viewing the image.” A related Ancestry.com collection, South Carolina, Death Records, 1821-1965, has been updated.

St. Croix: The Enslaved and the Free

A new Ancestry.com database reveals more about life in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands: Slave and Free People Records, 1779-1921. “The diversity of records in this database reflects some of St. Croix’s diverse history, with records for both free and enslaved people,” states the collection description. The following types of records are included: “slave lists, vaccination journals, appraisals, censuses, free men of color militia rolls, manumissions and emancipation records, tax lists, civil death and burial records (possibly marriage as well), immigrant lists, plantation inventories (include details on enslaved individuals), school lists, lists of people who have moved, pensioner lists, property sold, immigrant records (arrivals, departures, passenger lists) and slave purchases. Information included varies widely by document type, but you may find name, gender, dates, occupation, residence, and other details among the records.”

Washington death records

FamilySearch.org has added over 1.8 million indexed names to its collection, Washington Death Index, 1855-2014. “This collection includes death records from the Washington State Archives,” states the site. “There is an index and images of deaths recorded with the state. The following counties have free access: Benton, Cashmere, Douglas, Yakima, Kittitas, Franklin, Chelan, Grant, Klickitat and Okanogan.”

Learn all about how to start cemetery research with the brand new book, The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide. Discover tools for locating tombstones, tips for traipsing through cemeteries, an at-a-glance guide to frequently used gravestone icons, and practical strategies for on-the-ground research.

 

 

 

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links. Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Google for Genealogy: Google Keyword Search Tips

These Google keyword search tips can help you harness the incredible power of Google to search for your ancestors across trillions of webpages!

The Genealogist's Google Toolbox Third edition Lisa Louise Cooke

Click here to get my book on using Google

Do you use Google for genealogy? This free, powerful web browser will scan over 30 trillion webpages for information we request: our ancestors’ names, messages from those with common ancestors, or pictures and stories relating to our relatives’ lives.

However, it’s all too easy to run a Google search for an ancestor’s name–and then become discouraged when we see a quarter million search results. Especially if the first few results don’t seem relevant at all! We may give up, unaware that the gem we’re after is among our results, but much further down the list.

Certain Google keyword search tips and tricks can help you get exactly the types of search results you’re after. Once you learn Google search strategies for genealogy, you’ll find yourself using the same strategies to find other things online, from recipes to how-tos to old car manuals or anything else you need!google for genealogy keyword search tips

Here’s how to get started

1. Go to the Google home page and enter a few keywords relating to a piece of information you hope to find online. Say, an ancestor’s full name and hometown such as Andrew Larsen Scranton PA. Or a type of record you need and the location (probate records Lackawanna County PA). As you see from these examples, you don’t need commas in between your words or any other punctuation, at least to begin with. After entering a few keywords, hit Enter.

2. Look at your search results. The first few may be sponsored search results, or results that appear on websites that are paying for you to see them first. These results may or may not be what you’re looking for. Scan them, but keep looking!

3. Do you see too many search results? Too few? Not quite on target? Add or subtract keywords as needed, and search again. For example, if your search for probate records Lackawanna County PA just brings up current probate records, add the word genealogy. If Andrew Larsen Scranton PA doesn’t bring up any relevant results, try omitting his first name from the search. Then results for anyone with that surname will come up.

4. Still not quite right? It may be time to start adding little codes to tell Google exactly what you want.

5 Google Search Strategies That Get Better Results

Search operators are symbols and words that instruct Google on what to do with the keywords you provide in your search query. Get ready to talk Google’s language with these 5 strategies:

1. Quotation Marks (“ ”). One of the quickest ways to improve your search results is to use quotation marks. Using quotation marks around a phrase ensures that this exact phrase appears in each and every result. For example: “U.S. Federal Census” returns websites featuring that exact phrase, and no variation. “Jehu Burkhart” returns only webpages that include the exact name Jehu Burkhart somewhere on the page. Keep in mind though that if Jehu’s name appears as Burkhart, Jehu on a web page it will not appear in your results list.

2. OR. Use this to provide for more options in Google search results. For example, we can solve the last name first, first name last problem like this: “Jehu Burkhart” OR “Burkart, Jehu”. Not be sure whether Great Grandmother Smith is buried in Manhattan or Brooklyn?  Search for cemeteries in either city: Cemeteries Manhattan OR Brooklyn.

3. Minus Sign (-). Let’s say that you are searching a Harold Carter from Springfield, Ohio and there happens to be a prominent man named Harold Carter from Springfield, Missouri who keeps popping up in your search results. Ask yourself: “what’s unique about this other person that I could eliminate from my Google search?” If the unwanted Mr. Carter was married to Mabel and owned a steel factory, you could try this approach:“Harold Carter” “Springfield” Missouri -Mabel -Steel. By using the minus sign operator you can sweep this Mr. Carter from Missouri out of the way and off your results page.

4. Numrange (00..18). The numrange command adds a range of numbers to your search parameters. To enter the command, type the beginning number, then two periods (no spaces), then the ending number. Use this feature to include the timeframe of your ancestor’s life in your online search. “Harold Carter” “Springfield” 1865..1934

Google for Genealogy Search Strategies

Google Search Example

5. Mix and Match. As you can already see in the above examples, it is perfectly acceptable to mix and match search operators. Here’s a search query that makes use of our first four strategies:  “Harold Carter” OR “Carter Harold” “Springfield” Missouri -Mabel -Steel 1865..1934 

Resources for Success

Use Google Search Operators to Define Old or Unfamiliar Words

Can Google Help Me Search Digitized Newspaper Pages?

Google for Genealogy: New Search Operators and More (podcast episode, available to Premium members)

The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox

The Genealogist's Google Toolbox Third edition Lisa Louise Cooke

Available in the Genealogy Gems Store

The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox has become the “Google bible for genealogists.” Now in its second edition, the book was fully revised and updated in 2015. A lot has changed since the first edition was published in 2011, and it’s all documented step-by-step in this new edition.

This brand new edition includes:

  • Google Search
  • Google Alerts
  • Gmail
  • Google Books
  • Google Translate
  • YouTube
  • Google Earth
  • Brand new chapters on Google Scholar and Google Patents

share notes with evernoteIt’s Nice to Share. Do you have friends who would benefit from this article on using Google for genealogy and Google keyword search tips. Please share this article with them. You will find handy sharing buttons on this page, or just copy and paste the URL for this article into a Facebook post or email. Thanks!

Recent Updates: Online Genealogy Records at MyHeritage, Ancestry and Findmypast

At this time of sheltering at home, we’re fortunate that we can continue to pursue our favorite past time at home. Here are some of the latest genealogy records to come online this month. From my family to yours , stay safe and well friends. 

new genealogy records

The latest genealogy records from Genealogy Gems.

Ancestry

The first two items in this list of new and updated records is important for everyone who is researching their family history. If you had difficulty finding an ancestor in the 1850 or 1860 in the past, now is the time to search. Ancestry has updated portions of these two important census records. 

UPDATED – 1850 United States Federal Census

1850 census

Example of the 1850 US Federal Census.

Speaking of the census, all genealogists are looking forward to the release of the 1950 US census. We don’t have that long to wait now. The 1950 US Census is due to be released to the public in April of 2022. Until then, be sure to read our article answering the most important questions about this census. Read 1950 Census Substitute: What To Use Until its Release Date.

1950s family history

Listen to Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 181 for more about finding your family history in the 1950s.

Let’s continue on looking through the newest records on Ancestry:

UPDATED – South Carolina, Death Records, 1821-1968

NEW New York, Episcopal Diocese of Central New York Church Records, 1800-1970

NEW – New York State, Extradition Requisition and Mandate Registers, 1857-1938

NEW – South Carolina Probate Records, Files and Loose Papers, 1732-1964

NEW – South Carolina, Chesterfield County, Original Marriage licenses, 1911-1951

UPDATED Berlin, Germany, Births, 1874-1906

UPDATED – Montana, Divorce Records, 1943-1988

UPDATED – Montana, Birth Records, 1897-1988

UPDATED – Montana, Marriage Records, 1943-1988

UPDATED –U.S., Northern Pacific Railway Company Personnel Files, 1890-1963

One of the important aspects of this update according to Ancestry is that “changes were made to improve the performance of this collection. Family relationships such as parents and spouses are enabled to attach to your tree.

Note: This database does not yet include the entire collection of personnel files. Currently, only the file numbers listed in the browse are included. The remaining files will be added to this database at a later date.”

UPDATED – Ohio, Death Records, 1908-1932, 1938-2018

UPDATED – Ohio, Birth Index, 1908-1998

NEW – Irish Emigrants in North America, 1775-1825

According to Ancestry, “This present work is a consolidated reprint of two pamphlets by Mr. David Dobson that shed light on more than 1,100 Irish men and women and their families who emigrated to North America between roughly 1775 and 1825. As such, this volume adds to the list of 1,000 men and women compiled by Mr. Dobson in three earlier pamphlets in this series, which were published by Clearfield Company as Irish Emigrants in North America. Unlike the earlier collection, which was derived from a variety of Scottish and North American source records, the persons named in Irish Emigrants in North America, Parts Four and Five, were found primarily in contemporary newspapers in Canada and the United States. Each of the two lists of Irish persons is arranged alphabetically by the emigrant’s surname and, in the majority of cases, provides us with most of the following particulars: name, date of birth, name of ship, occupation in Ireland, reason for emigration, sometimes place of origin in Ireland, place of disembarkation in the New World, date of arrival, number of persons in the household, and the source of the information.”

NEW – Web: U.S., Congressional Medal of Honor Society Recipients, 1839 – 2012

UPDATED – Massachusetts, Boston Archdiocese Roman Catholic Sacramental Records, 1789-1900

NEW – Maine, Piscataquis County, Deed Books, 1838-1902

UPDATED – New York, New York, Index to Birth Certificates, 1866-1909

NEW – Maine, Veterans Cemetery Records, 1676-1918

NEW – Maine, Nathan Hale Cemetery Collection, 1780-1980

NEW – Maine, J. Gary Nichols Cemetery Collection, ca. 1780-1999

NEW – Maine, Faylene Hutton Cemetery Collection, 1780-1990

NEW – Maine, Tombstone Inscriptions, Surname Index, 1718-2014

NEW – Maine, York County, Probate Estate Files, 1690-1917

Findmypast

Here are the latest new and updated records from Findmypast, the home of the largest collection of UK parish records online.

Middlesex Baptisms

Unique to Findmypast, these records can reveal details about the start of your relatives’ lives in Middlesex. The collection has been enhanced with over 17,000 new records from the following parishes:

  • Hampton
  • Hayes
  • Hornsey
  • Stanwell

Click here to search. 

“Our thanks go to Cliff Webb and West Middlesex Family History Society for providing these latest additions.”

Cambridgeshire Burials

Over 6,000 burials from Mt Pleasant Cemetery, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire have joined the largest collection of British parish records online at Findmypast.

These latest additions join the largest collection of UK parish records online at Findmypast.

Click here to search the Cambridgeshire burial records.

“The burial records date from 1881 to 1925 and have been provided by Fenland Family History Society. You won’t find them anywhere else online.”

Jamaica, Civil Death Registrations

Discover your Caribbean roots with over 1.5 million new civil death registration records from Jamaica. Brought to you in partnership with FamilySearch, these death records can tell you more about your relative’s life and death in Jamaica.

As you trace your Jamaican past, be sure to also delve into these other useful resources:

Dating as far back as the 1500s, our Jamaican family history records are essential for finding out more about your Caribbean ancestors. What’s more, they’ll provide hints for any Jamaican ancestors already on your Findmypast family tree.”

Newspapers

“The Caribbean-themed releases continue in our newspaper collection this week. We’ve added new papers from Jamaica and Ireland and updated a range of others. Brand new to the site are:

While the following newspapers have been supplemented with more issues:

We’ve added almost a century’s worth of pages from one new newspaper along with substantial updates to 10 titles from England and Ireland this week. Brand new to the site is:

As well as that, here is the list of papers that have had more pages added and the years covered:

Newspapers are a goldmine of information on your family’s past. Not only could you find your ancestors making headlines, but you’ll also get insight into the world they lived in, the kind you won’t find in other records.”

MyHeritage

MyHeritage photos

Thanks to the amazing new colorization tool at MyHeritage, their collection of old family history photos is larger than ever before. (Learn more this new tool in our article Myheritage Launches Colorized Photos!)
 
As of Mar 26 2020, the updated collection of old photos reached a total of 141,129,707! This is a great time to check your smart matches 

Now through April 23, 2020, you can enjoy Free and Unlimited Access to MyHeritage In Color™. Read more about that here

Photo colorization at MyHeritage

Click to read the Genealogy Gems article.

 

Jewish Genealogy Research

Each area of genealogy research comes with a unique set of challenges. Jewish genealogy is no exception, but thankfully there are fantastic websites and online resources available to help. Even if you don’t have Jewish ancestors, these resources may prove very helpful for researching Eastern European branches of your family tree. Many provide detailed maps and information about towns that have long since vanished. 
 
In this week’s Elevenses with Lisa episode professional genealogist Ellen Shindelman Kowitt (Director of JewishGen’s USA Research Division and National Vice Chair of a DAR Specialty Research Jewish Task Force) joins us to share:
  • unique features that JewishGen.org has to offer
  • the best regional websites
  • what you need to do before you dig into these websites


You can watch here, or click “Watch on YouTube” to watch at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel where you can also view the live chat by signing into YouTube with a free Google account. 

Episode 57 Show Notes

Interview Transcript

Lisa Louise Cooke: When I think of Jewish genealogy, immediately my mind goes to JewishGen.org, and I was hoping you could start us off with an overview of that. I know that you’re involved with them and boy, do they have a lot to offer!

Ellen Kowitt: JewishGen is really the premier main source for Jewish records on the internet today.

It’s run as a non-profit and it’s actually a part of a museum on the lower side of Manhattan called the Museum of Jewish Living Heritage. It’s run by a professional executive director, Abraham Grohl, but then there are thousands of volunteers that participate as research division directors, who help to identify records, index records, and translate records because language is a big issue in Jewish genealogy.

They’ve developed some really great data sets that can be searched for free by anyone. There is no charge to search JewishGen. Similar to FamilySearch, they ask that you register for a username and a password, but they don’t sell your name and it’s not going to go anywhere past accessing that website.

JewishGen

They have different tools they have developed that are unique to searching Jewish records.

I think there are a lot of entry points into JewishGen. For a novice, particularly beginners who have not done a lot of research anywhere on the internet, it can be a little overwhelming. They have a unified search, which combines the data sets from hundreds of records into one search function, because you can search each of these data sets separately. But if you’re just browsing and curious, and just want to throw your names in, the unified search is a great place to start.

Something that is really exciting about it is that they’ve had these special algorithms developed that are unique to Jewish names and Jewish languages. I’ll mention the Jewish languages in a minute, but it’s similar to the National Archives in the United States, which developed what we call the Soundex, which is an alpha-numeric code assigned to your name. It helps you navigate other spellings to your name that are similar, but maybe your family didn’t spell it that way, but it could be found in a record that way. The American Soundex doesn’t always work on Jewish or mostly Eastern-European names, so these special Soundexes were developed on JewishGen that are now used throughout the Jewish genealogy world on other databases as well. One is called the Daitch–Mokotoff. Another is called the Beider-Morse, but JewishGen doesn’t call them that. When you go in, it’s blind to you.

You’ll put your name or your town name into the search engine and there is a form with fields that you can populate. It doesn’t matter if you’re spelling the names of your given name, your surname, or your town name correctly, because you’re going to be able to pick a couple of different ways to search in a drop-down menu.

The first one will be called “Sounds Like,” the second is “Phonetically Like,” and then it goes into “Starts With,” “Is Exactly,” “Fuzzy Match,” “Fuzzier Match,” and “Fuzziest Match.” My recommendation is always search on “Sounds Like” and “Phonetically Like” because those are Daitch–Mokotoff and Beider-Morse Jewish algorithms for Jewish names and places. So that’s really, really helpful.

Many times people coming to Jewish genealogy are just hung up on names, where they come from, and figuring out an immigrant’s place of origin. Because, think about it: nobody spoke English in the Russian Empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is where a majority of Jews came from after 1880. So, they’re speaking languages like German and Russian, Lithuanian and Polish, and even Yiddish, which is linguistically more like German although it is written with Hebrew letters.

These immigrants come to American ports and there could be an immigrant from another part of the world with a different kind of accent, like an Irishman. So, an Irishman in America listening to a Yiddish speaker from Russia – of course they’re going to butcher spelling the names. It’s just par for the course.

People can’t get hung up on the spellings of Jewish names, particularly the surnames and the towns of origin where they are emigrating from. Of course, those towns are important to narrow down and understand where they were, because that’s where you’re going to look for the records.

JewishGen’s Communities Database

That’s a second point about JewishGen that’s so helpful. They have a Communities Database, and that lists over 6,000 places where Jews mostly lived in the largest populations around Eastern Europe. In many of those places, Jews don’t live there anymore, but they will outline for you in different time periods where the records are or where they were.

We always refer to Jews coming from Russia because we see that on passenger manifests or census records. But a lot of times when you see Russia as a place of origin for a Jewish family, if they came before 1917, that was Russian Empire. The Russian Empire doesn’t exist anymore, and what was the Russian Empire pre-1975 is not Russia-proper today.

There are a lot of countries where your family could have come from, including Poland, because part of Poland was in the Russian Empire. Your family might actually be from Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, or Ukraine, or even some places in the south that don’t exist anymore. There used to be an area referred to as Bessarabia, and another one, Bukovina. These don’t exist anymore. Even Prussia, when you talk about the German Jews who came over, and this is true for non-Jews, too. There is no Prussian Empire anymore, and what was the Prussian Empire is now largely Poland, parts of Russia, and Germany of course. But it’s misleading that if your family spoke German and said that were Prussian, that they were German the way we think of Germany today. A lot of Jews came from Prussia, so that’s why I mention it.

Those are the key things about JewishGen. It helps with you the name complications and determining what other spellings there might be in records. It also helps you with locating these towns and what the administrative districts today would be.

How to Get Started in Jewish Genealogy Research

If you’re researching a Jewish family, it’s no different than any other American family, if you’re starting in America. You start with the civil records, the vital records, the census records, and the passenger manifests. None of these American records are divided by faith or ethnic group. So, a Jewish person, or if you’re researching a Jewish branch, should be starting the same way as any other American research. Start with yourself, work backwards, go through and exhaust all of the American records that you can, which will help you determine what those original names and place they came from are. That’s where JewishGen really helps you. It’s kind of like a 102 class. You have to do the American 101 records, and then when you’ve exhausted all of that, you jump to the Jewish records, which are largely available through JewishGen.

JewishGen Networking

And the big point about JewishGen is the networking, because there’s this huge discussion group. They are now on Facebook with a group.

They have something called the JewishGen Family Finder, where you can register the names you’re looking for and/or the towns. Likewise, you can search to see whom else is researching the same names and towns that you are.

Through the messaging on JewishGen, you can get in touch with them and say, “Hey this is my story. Can I see your tree?” or “Do you have any family photos?” or “Have you had any success finding records for the little town in the middle of Ukraine?” Or even, “Have you hired a researcher that was helpful in pushing your research back in this particular archive in Lithuania?” It’s a fantastic way to find people researching the same obscure, small areas of the world that you are.

Lisa Louise Cooke – That’s an amazing resource, and you’re so right that we still have to follow the basic genealogy methodology. We still need to go through those records here. It’s tempting – I know people will say, “Well I know they were Jewish” so they’ll want to jump into that, and yet you miss so many clues that would probably come in super handy once you get over to JewishGen and you’re ready for that.

Ellen Kowitt: Absolutely…I find people who come to Jewish genealogy as beginners have not done that. I’m often backtracking and teaching American research before I ever get to a single Jewish record. I think that it’s really important that people take a look at (American records).

If they’re not in the United States and they’re listening, Canadian records or British records, wherever you might be starting from. You need to start in the country where your person that you’re researching is located, with those records first.

JewishGen Research Divisions

Lisa Louise Cooke: That’s a great point. I know for my own Sporowskis who were German-East Prussians, really they’re out of Belarus. I’m pretty sure that even though my great-grandfather later was going to the Lutheran church in America, I think they were a Jewish family back in Belarus. JewishGen has been one of the few places to find information about some of these locations that have changed names and boundaries. It’s just an amazing resource in that way.

Ellen Kowitt: Belarus is a good example. JewishGen has maybe over 20 research divisions. I happen to be the director for what’s called the USA Research Division, and just to define that, it’s not census records and passenger manifests. It’s looking at records held at Jewish repositories that are in the US, like the American Jewish Archives or the Southern Jewish Historical Society.

There are research divisions geographically all throughout Eastern Europe and there is one for Belarus called the Belarus Research Division. If you click on their link from JewishGen’s drop-down menu, they have their own website and they give a lot of maps, from now and then, of what Belarus was, and lists of towns divided by province, or what was gubernia. There are ways to connect with people and search what their records are.

Here’s a little tip I have about Research Divisions and any project on JewishGen. If you don’t find what you’re looking for and you really think it might be there, or you’re spelling it wrong and it’s not showing up in the Soundex, contact whoever the person is on that record set or who the Research Division director is, or who the town leader is.

In Ukraine, there are hundreds of town leaders for these little towns and what we find is that the town leaders and the Research Division leaders often know or are holding onto records that are not online. If you’re not finding something, it’s free to send an email! Just inquire and say, “Do you know anything else about Grodno, Belarus in 1854? Or the name Cohen?” or whatever it is, and you just never know what these folks have because I have found there are a lot of offline lists that the experts know about.

Lisa Louise Cooke: That’s very good insider information. It’s true, as you go into your genealogy research you get more and more daring and send that email. All they can do is just not be available. But it sounds like those folks are more than happy to help. What a wonderful idea.

Regional Jewish Genealogy Resources

Lisa Louise Cooke: We were talking about specific regions and I’m sure there are all kinds of different things here, but what other types of websites might be out there for regional Jewish genealogy?

Ellen Kowitt: It’s a little confusing. There is kind of a hierarchy. It’s not coordinated by any organizing body, but there are three independently run Jewish database sites. When I say the names, sometimes people say, “Oh that’s part of JewishGen.” They’re not. They are run independently. The three are:

  • JRI-Poland which stands for Jewish Records Indexing Poland,
  • Gesher Galicia, and I’ll define that for you.
  • And what we used to call LitvakSIG, and SIG stands for Special Interest Group.

All three of these groups kind of have roots in JewishGen and then for different organizing reasons all wanted to organize as independent non-profits. But they share their data. Now, do they share all of their data? Do they share their data at the same time? Are they sharing it in the same place? The answers really vary. This is why, I always say, if you’re brand new, check out Unified Search on JewishGen.

Ancestry actually has some of LitvakSIG, some of JRI-Poland, and some of JewishGen’s records. Just recently LitvakSIG released some of their records to MyHeritage. So, there is some overlap back and forth on the data sets. But if you’re from these three particular geographic regions, I would not only be looking on Ancestry, FamilySearch, and JewishGen. I would always go to their original databases on each of their original websites.

LitvakSIG

LitvakSIG really stands for Lithuania, but Lithuania today is really different than the geographic borders of Lithuania a hundred years ago. When you look at modern-day Lithuania on a map, if your family is coming from a part of Latvia or Belarus or an area of Russia that surrounds that area, you might want to look there. I have this corner of southwestern Lithuania that part of my family came from, but it has also been Prussian, it has been Suwalki, Poland, and it’s right near Belarus, but yet I found records in Lithuania in LitvakSIG. I have also found them in Suwalki from JRI-Poland. So, loosely when you define your location, consider what’s geographically around the modern-day borders. But LitvakSIG is predominantly Lithuania and a lot of Jews came from Vilnius and Kaunus and all these places up there.

JRI-Poland

The second one is JRI-Poland. They are fantastic in their records acquisition. They’ve had partnerships with the Polish state archives. They give locations of microfilm that are for Polish municipalities at the FamilySearch digital collection. They have tons of volunteers who have worked there for 30 years. It’s extremely extensive.

For listeners who don’t know, the Polish State Archives has largely gone online, so a lot of vital records are digitized and you can go right to the record. Now, it may be in Polish or Russian, but you can get to those records for free, just like you can on FamilySearch sometimes.

JRI-Poland is just a powerhouse for getting access, using their indexes first to locate if there are records for your family in a town, using the Soundexes that are the Jewish Soundexes, and then getting to the original record. I just love JRI-Poland.

And be loose on those borders because it’s going to include Suwalki and those areas north on the Lithuanian-Russian border. Even the Belarus border and that Prussian border on the other side. For JRI-Poland, ‘cast a broad net’ is areas that were ever considered Poland, even on the southern side, too.

Gesher Galicia

The third one is called Gesher Galicia, also run independently, and also shares data with JewishGen. Galicia does not exist anymore. It was a designation for an area that today you would think of on a map as western Ukraine and eastern Poland, and a lot of Jews lived in Galicia. Unique to that area is that it was Austro-Hungarian Empire at one point, so the records are in German, not so much in Russian or in Polish.

But Gesher Galicia has got a fantastic search engine on their database, and they are another powerhouse that is just continuing with their volunteer army of adding so many great data sets.

They’re really good, too, at allowing you to list what towns you’re researching if you join, and I think they have a small membership fee. In fact, each of them have a membership fee that they’ve added on, and I think that just gives you access to records maybe a little bit sooner.

These three are often lumped in with JewishGen but are really organized as separate organizations and they acquire records and index them in a different way.

Lisa Louise Cooke: That’s a great overview and it reminds us, like with all genealogy, that when you see partners working together and they end up with records on multiple sites, I find myself wanting to look at those records, even if they’re the same, on every site. You never know what the nuances are. You never know if their image is clear. There are so many different possible variations.

Jewish Records at Ancestry.com

Ellen Kowitt: There are! I have taken a deep dive on Ancestry’s records of JewishGen. They started an arrangement awhile back, I think in 2008, and JewishGen gave them a bunch of records in return for Ancestry housing their servers. So a great business arrangement for a little non-profit like JewishGen, but confusing for people like researchers that only use Ancestry and never look any further. 

Certainly if you’re finding things on Ancestry (Jewish Records at Ancestry) that are JewishGen, you want to go to JewishGen and search also because JewishGen has not updated all the records that they sent to Ancestry ten or more years ago. There are unique records that were never sent to Ancestry, and you pick up those Jewish Soundex search capacities on JewishGen.

Now, Ancestry’s search has definitely advanced in recent years but it’s not the Beider-Morse the Daitch–Mokotoff Jewish algorithms for searching Jewish names. If you can’t find somebody on the JewishGen collection at Ancestry, go to JewishGen and try running the search there.

Holocaust Research

Lisa Louise Cooke: Another area I can think of as a roadblock area for folks in their research is around the Holocaust. What kinds of resources do we have to conduct research when it comes to the Holocaust?

Ellen Kowitt: I started doing this about 25 years ago and it used to be that either the records were not released by some of the archives in Russia or in the East, or they weren’t in English, or they weren’t indexed. You would put in these requests and it would take literally years for certain repositories to answer a basic inquiry with “Yes” or “No” if they have a card on your family.

I think there was a lot of mythology build around ‘you can’t document the Holocaust and what happened to people’ and what we’re finding all these years is later is that there are so many records. Plenty of people are documenting their families. We are continuing to find more resources available online, even from repositories that are traditionally not in English.

It’s hard to say where to start, because the story of the Holocaust has also evolved. It used to be we learned in school, if we even learned at all about the story of the Holocaust, that it was the story of the concentration camps and the Jews being gassed, and that’s certainly true. But there are so many other elements of the Holocaust like the story of the 1 ½ million Jews killed in Ukraine before anyone ever was killed at Auschwitz. We call this “the Holocaust by bullets” (and the story and most of what was the Soviet Union at that time), was the Jews were rounded up and, this is gruesome, but they were executed and left in mass graves that are unmarked, largely, throughout what was the Soviet Union.

Even Jews who knew their family was tied up in those kinds of stories thought there was no way to figure out what happened to their family or the town. But we do have records. The Russians kept records. It turns out the Germans kept records. A lot of this has become available online that you can search in English.

It really depends, for a family that knows they have a Holocaust story, where they were, what country they originated in, if you know the story that they went to a camp, or if they were in a small town where there was a mass grave. You’re going to be looking at very different resources.

I would say, if you only had to look at one and you wanted to just start this process, Yad Vashem’s website in Israel, in English, would be the place to do a general top-level search. The reason is because Yad Vashem is like the US version of the (United States) Holocaust (Memorial) Museum in DC, and they have resources too, but the one in Israel is called Yad Vashem and it has a larger collection.

They have also collected these pages of testimony from survivors who talk about their family members and where they last saw them, or if they know the exact story about what happened to them or their whereabouts throughout the war. Thousands of these pages have been submitted and they’re searchable. You can see the original pages that people submit and you can even get in contact with the people submitting them. It’s a great networking opportunity for people looking to connect. Yad Vashem has these great success stories, less and less because the survivors are aging out, where they connected people who still had living relatives in Argentina, Australia, or in Europe, and they’re just fantastic renewal stories.

But yes, complicated topic. It is possible to learn what happened to a community, hopefully to an individual. Records are at Bad Arolsen, the Arolsen archives in Germany, in addition to Yad Vashem and the US Holocaust Museum.

JewishGen does have a Holocaust collection worth searching, although it’s smaller than these other larger repositories. There are all kinds of things on the internet – webinars, speakers, and even books that have been published on how to track down victims and survivors of the Holocaust.

And non-Jewish, too. I recently was looking into someone who came from a Ukrainian Orthodox family and they were shipped out of Ukraine to what would be now the Czech Republic, and they were in a work camp. Sometimes these repositories you think of as Jewish record repositories for Jews in the Holocaust also tell the story of the non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Lisa Louise Cooke: I so appreciate your vast knowledge on this. I know you teach people about genealogy, Jewish genealogy – tell us a little bit about you got started in genealogy and then into it professionally.

Ellen Kowitt: I guess like everybody out there, I just have that gene. Even from a young age, I was the one who just gobbled up the stories at the holiday tables and remembered the names and connected the relationships and just kept track of it in my head, long before I realized that was not normal, it was unusual and not everyone does that.

There is a woman, Sallyann Sack, who writes a lot of books on Jewish genealogy and she’s one of the publishers of Avotanyu, which is both a journal on Jewish genealogy and also a publishing company on books about Jewish genealogy. In my twenties, I happened to go to a lecture she gave at a synagogue in Washington DC, 25 or more years ago. She said “Hey we have this club! It’s a Jewish genealogy society and we’re doing a beginners workshop. Do you want to come?” I went and there was no looking back. I just got the bug. I started interviewing relatives like we all are taught, to talk to the oldest people first and the records can wait.

It just went from there. I got super involved as a volunteer. I actually think volunteering is a great way when you’re a beginner to learn about record sets. I have seen probate records, naturalizations, and Jewish records that I would never have found in my own family by helping index through a project with a local society. That was fascinating to me.

Then one day a friend insisted on paying me money to do some research on his mother, and I actually liked it. I thought, wow, if I can make a few extra dollars to pay for my genealogy obsession – and these websites can be expensive, the conferences cost money – but if I can make money and help to pay for my obsession, then I’m going to be a professional. So, that’s how I fell into that and it’s grown from there.

Lisa Louise Cooke: I think those of us who caught the bug when we were young are really fortunate because we got opportunities and I think had a focus on talking to and recording some of those stories. I know that’s probably people’s biggest regret, when they didn’t think about it back when they had an opportunity to interview some of the older relatives. I know in my case I just treasure the few interviews that I did do and I still have.

Ellen Kowitt: Me too.

Lisa Louise Cooke: I really appreciate you sharing all these wonderful resources. And of course, folks can visit you at your website at EllenKowitt.com, and I know that you do lecturing and all kinds of professional work on genealogy, and the wonderful article, Find Your Jewish Roots Online, in the May/June 2021 issue of Family Tree Magazine. Ellen, it’s been a delight to talk to you. Thank you so much for joining us here on the show.

Ellen Kowitt: Thank you so much for having me, I enjoyed it!

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